Should I study abroad or just take a vacation?
December 23, 2009 11:15 AM   Subscribe

Should I study abroad or just take a vacation?

I'm a sophomore in college and I have always wanted to study abroad. However, due to being nervous about leaving everything behind for a semester or a year, I've been looking at summer programs, and I figure I can try going abroad out for about a month this upcoming summer then next year I could settle down somewhere a little more.

I've found that right now, the summer program seems ideal. It's a program that visits 6 countries over 35 days in Europe. I get 6 credits that might actually be a hindrance to me (as in, they do absolutely nothing for me in regards to graduating) in subjects I only have a vague interest in. However, I'm sure I would enjoy myself in these classes and learn a lot.

The classes are taught by visiting bunches of museums, etc., and having a professor teach.

However, for me to go on this expenditure, I would need about 8000 or 9000 dollars. I am a college student with a part time job, and I figure by the time the trip rolls around I would probably need to take out a 4000-5000 dollar loan. I haven't really researched vacation packages, but they are certainly cheaper. I think I might be able to afford one of them without taking out a loan, or at least my loan would be significantly less.

Quite honestly, I just want to do this for the experience of seeing the world beyond the US and seeing other cultures. I don't really care about the formal education part... I also have the idea in my head that if I don't travel now, while in college when I have relatively few responsibilities, I might never get to go.

Studying abroad would look good on my resume, right? But is that worth the extra thousands of dollars?

Also, I am fully confident that, assuming nothing terrible happens like losing my job (which is unlikely), I would be able to pay off this loan probably before I graduate. Really the study abroad trip, with food and airfare and the cost of the program, is 7000 dollars but I would feel nervous about having zero dollars in my bank account. Would paying a loan off like that make my credit go up? My credit score is already good, but it can always be better, right?

The study abroad trip seems really cool but I just don't have all that money, and I really want to go now instead of waiting. It is just so much money. My money is just sitting around now, but still I don't want to part with it.

I know that going alone would be the cheapest route but I would rather go with a tour group.

So, is it worth it to study abroad when I don't care about the formal education aspect as much as I care about the experience of going, or should I just find a vacation group and go with them? Advice and anecdotes please!
posted by tweedle to Travel & Transportation (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I've never studied abroad, but I know a couple people who have (in Europe). Two things everyone always seems to say:

1) It was totally, utterly, completely worth it.
2) Academically, it was worthless. As in, these guys had to take an extra semester or two of classes when they came back because (a) nothing they did overseas counted towards their major, or (b) their grades were so poor it didn't matter.

So if you're going to go, go for the experience and don't worry about the classes so much. To me, it seems like the courses are just a way to sell it to the parents ;)
posted by sbutler at 11:23 AM on December 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

The program you are looking at is defiantly one of the more expensive ones. No matter what field you are in you should be able to find a study abroad program that will allow you to take relevant classes, for less money and for a whole semester.

If the credits don't really matter to you then don't do this program. Just go backpacking for the same amount of time and you will spend less than $3,000.
posted by nestor_makhno at 11:41 AM on December 23, 2009

If you're comfortable traveling by yourself, or can find a friend to go with, you can do things much, much cheaper than this. If the classes don't really grab you, you're less likely to get anything out of them, but if they're done well and cover a topic that you are legitimately interested in, it can be a really great way to get more out of a trip that you otherwise would.

However, that many countries in that many days sounds like it would be a very superficial overview of topics. In my experience, summer study abroad programs are significantly less, uh.. rigorous than semester or year-long programs. (I did two summers and one semester as an undergrad due to a cool scholarship opportunity). There's a *lot* of time spent drinking and getting to know the nightlife. Nothing wrong with that, but there may be other ways to spend your money that you'd appreciate more.
posted by bluejayk at 12:10 PM on December 23, 2009

I studied in France on a program that was run through my college, not an independent one. I was on financial aid and my aid covered my term abroad.

It was utterly and thoroughly worth it, both academically and extra-academically, if you will. Because the program was run through my college, the classes I took in France (everything in French, including (of course) the French language, art history, and history) counted as credit and my history class counted towards my major. (My college goes by terms, not semesters, and we took three classes per term, generally.)

I learned much more about where I was than I would have if I'd just bummed around on my own, which I've also done a lot of. But YMMV.
posted by rtha at 12:14 PM on December 23, 2009

You really aren't going to learn anything about yourself or the countries you visit only spending 6 or 7 days in them. Do a full semester somewhere, your future self will thank you.
posted by BobbyDigital at 12:23 PM on December 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

I have never studied abroad but always wanted to. and I have friends who have done the summer abroad thing so here are my 2 cents:

If you don't care about the academic part, and i think studying abroad doesn't satisfy academically unless you're a language/foreign culture major, I would do the summer abroad. Your program, however, sounds expensive.

What my friends have done in the past was search for summer teaching/work/volunteer positions outside of the US, that way, you can get subsidized housing and experience living in a different country. I used to participate in this organization called AIESEC, which is very huge, and provides international paid/unpaid internship opportunities for college students, look them up. Honestly, if you don't care about classes and just want the experience, why pay so much for it? If you work and live abroad at the same time, you could potentially earn extra cash that allows you to travel in neighboring countries once your internship is over, which is what a lot of my friends did.

As for your resume, I think this type of experience always generates an interesting conversation in any interview. On the plus side is if you worked while you were abroad, that adds to the professional experience too!
posted by frozenyogurt at 12:29 PM on December 23, 2009

You should definitely study abroad - it was the best thing I did in college. But that 35 day, 6 country, $9000 program (for which you would not get any useful academic credit) is a total complete waste of money, and you shouldn't do it.

The point of studying abroad is to become immersed in another culture. Visiting 6 countries in 35 days is completely the opposite of that. If you do that program, you won't make any foreign friends, you won't really learn another city, and you certainly won't learn another language. You will just be hanging out with a bunch of Americans, for a lot of money, and no useful credit.

Get out there and research the hell out of the programs available, and find one in a country that interests you a lot, in a city that seems cool, and -- this is really important -- is not an American study abroad ghetto, like Sevilla, Spain. And you need to stay there for at least a semester. If you already have an area of academic interest, find a program that allows you to work on your interest and take classes in a foreign university.

Finance wise, my study abroad actually ended up saving me money compared to paying full tuition at home. School and cost of living is generally cheaper in lots of places in Europe, and certainly will be cheaper further afield in South America or Asia or wherever else.
posted by yarly at 12:30 PM on December 23, 2009

The benefits to going through school are:

- you can get student loans to cover the costs;
- lodging and travel within the countries you're visiting will be worked out for you (these can be difficult to navigate on your own at first, especially if you don't know the language);
- being with a group will keep you from getting lonely or overwhelmed;
- having a schedule will force you to keep moving and take you to places you wouldn't have found on your own.

The only drawbacks would be if your program requires you to spend a lot of time in a classroom somewhere or doing homework that you're not particularly interested in. But if you have an interest in visiting museums anyway, then it sounds like an awesome opportunity. All the better if you don't need the credits, because then you can soak up the in-person lectures and tours and blow off any time-consuming homework in favor of exploring on your own!

I went to Europe for a summer through a school program a couple years ago, and though I'm still paying it off, it was absolutely, completely worth it. If you decide to do that particular school trip, I'd recommend tacking an extra week or so on the end to travel on your own or spend more time in your favorite city. Also, be sure you have a decent cushion money-wise - food can be ridiculously expensive when traveling, and you'll want to bring back gifts and souvenirs.
posted by Fifi Firefox at 12:33 PM on December 23, 2009

However, for me to go on this expenditure, I would need about 8000 or 9000 dollars. I am a college student with a part time job, and I figure by the time the trip rolls around I would probably need to take out a 4000-5000 dollar loan. I haven't really researched vacation packages, but they are certainly cheaper. I think I might be able to afford one of them without taking out a loan, or at least my loan would be significantly less.

This is crazy. Do what I do nearly year, spend a month to six weeks learning a language in a foreign country. Wth a plane ticket, this can cost under $3000. You'll meet loads of great people, have a ball, really get to know a city / region and walk away with some meaningful language skills (whether or not you can get credit for them, although you should be able to.)

I've been going to Hungary and Romania and can now converse well in both languages, which aren't anything my native language. (And Hungarian's different from almost everything.) I may go to Krakow (Poland) this year. Or maybe L'viv (Ukraine.) I'm more than a decade past college, and do this just for the incredibly great times I always have. Six countries in 35 days is stupid - if you love it, you'll have the rest of your life to travel.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 12:37 PM on December 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I spent a semester abroad in South Korea and it was fantastic. It was definitely one of the best experiences of my life and well worth having to take an extra semester when I got back. I had taken a lighter course load and many other students in the program did similar things but going to classes took a backseat to traveling the country for just about everyone I knew.

The summer program you describe seems to just be spending a few days in each country visiting museums, which still sounds cool, but you would get a much more fulfilling experience living and immersing yourself in a different country. Also, the cost of your summer program seems really expensive, like $8,000 sounds close to what I spent for my semester abroad, and you can get financial aid as well.

Also, if your school doesn't offer options abroad that appeal to you, in many cases you can apply directly to the foreign university you want to go to. My university didn't have any programs in Korea, so I just picked a university in Seoul and applied there myself. It's harder because your university probably won't give you much help (mine sure didn't), but it definitely expands your options.
posted by Shesthefastest at 12:43 PM on December 23, 2009

That program sounds ridiculous. When people say you should 'study abroad' they mean go to another country and live there for a semester taking classes at a local university. A girl I know went on one of these summer trips and the consensus among our friends was that she was too rich to realise how much money she was spending and too immature to manage a trip on her own. If you just want to tour Europe, you can do that in a group without the professor for much less- check out this kind of thing
-GAP tours
posted by jacalata at 12:53 PM on December 23, 2009

I did a summer program, but mine was 3.5 weeks in England, taking one class. It was through my college and was taught by a professor from my school.

It was 100% worth it.

It also cost a fraction of the program you've listed above. Are there any programs available through your school that will let you stay in only one country? We traveled all over England during my class, and I felt I learned a lot more than if I'd done a survey of 5 or 6 nations.
posted by inmediasres at 1:00 PM on December 23, 2009

Look around at a lot of study programs and vet them all with your college so that the credits will be accepted. Many colleges overseas have lower tuition than in the US. It's great to have a focus and ready-made classmates when overseas. You'll meet people to travel or stay with if you're enrolled somewhere. You might make up any courses you miss at home another summer at a community college in the US.
posted by Elsie at 1:02 PM on December 23, 2009

It's a program that visits 6 countries over 35 days in Europe.

Forget it.
posted by mdonley at 1:08 PM on December 23, 2009

I studied abroad for two semesters and it was by far the best decision I ever made regarding my self-education. I paid the same tuition I would have--just had to pay for the plane ticket and pay for my room and board (about 20% more expensive than my home institution). I would never have learned so much about the culture (or myself) had I just been a tourist/done the whistlestop tour you're contemplating. That, to me, seems like a complete scam.

An alternative is to do an extended working holiday through BUNAC. There are a variety of options, but, at least with the UK option, you get 6 months worth of permission to hold a full time job. You could easily spend all of your summer vacation in the UK, working in a pub, and then hopping over to the continent with one of the low-cost carriers to see France, Spain, Italy or where ever else takes your fancy. You probably won't make any money, but it should be a bit cheaper than just taking a month-long vacation. I've also done this--feel free to shoot me a message if you want more info about my experience (tip: if you choose the UK, don't go to London unless you reeeeeaaaally want to be in London--your accomodation and other living expenses will be much cheaper elsewhere).
posted by brambory at 1:13 PM on December 23, 2009

I spent 4 years at a university in Europe where our student body was about half composed of Americans studying abroad for a semester or two. In other words, I met a couple hundred study abroad students, took classes with them and hung out with them as they discovered Europe. The impression I got from them is pretty much identical to what sbutler said:

1) It was totally, utterly, completely worth it.
2) Academically, it was worthless. As in, these guys had to take an extra semester or two of classes when they came back because (a) nothing they did overseas counted towards their major, or (b) their grades were so poor it didn't matter.

posted by skintension at 1:29 PM on December 23, 2009

I think that not only will a vacation be cheaper, but you will get more out of it. For one thing, part of the fun of traveling when you're young is meeting people in youth hostels. But I also think that you get more out of the experience if you have to plan it yourself. If you go with an organized program, you will float through the experience passively. If you go on your own, you have to be actively engaged in deciding what to do and figuring out how to do it.

If you can study abroad for a semester or year, I would definitely do that. It's an amazing experience. But if you can only go for a summer, I would choose a vacation over an organized tour, which is what this "study abroad" thing would be.
posted by craichead at 2:14 PM on December 23, 2009

I did a whole year abroad (9 months) and traveled Europe instead of flying home for break. It totally changed my life. All my credits transferred and I graduated in 4 years. I paid regular tuition to my home university but living expenses were a bit more in the UK than the US.

I'm usually on here telling people to go for a year, not just a semester so all that money for a summer program makes no sense to me. Even with only a semester once you integrate yourself into the culture and make friends it's time to leave. You will see lots with that program but experience very little.

If your only option is the summer and not a semester or year I suggest either backpacking or picking one city, staying in a hostel until you find a flat for short term rent and taking language classes or just living and taking side trips from there.

I started traveling alone in Europe at 20 and have been all over the world alone. I meet so many people it's hard to be alone sometimes. It's really not as daunting as it sounds. Oh, and I traveled across Asia for 6.5 months for $10k and think you could do a lot better with your money, even in Europe.
posted by Bunglegirl at 3:04 PM on December 23, 2009

I know a couple of people who have done Camp Adventure. If you like kids that would be a more affordable option.
posted by katieanne at 3:42 PM on December 23, 2009

I was in a sticky money situation when I studied abroad, and ended up spending pretty much every saved penny to go to a country that was not anywhere near my first choice. From that experience, here's what I've got to say:

(1) I was miserable. But I'm glad I did it. If I hadn't, I would have wondered. So you should do this, one way or another.

(2) One of the primary causes of misery was that I spent all my money getting there and paying tuition and had literally no money left over for fun. I was in Mexico, which is relatively cheap, so I took some bus trips around, but there was no flying to Cancun, or going to other Central American countries, or joining university clubs (they all cost money), or anything like that. I had to search for two months to find a university community service program that didn't require me to pay to participate. (wtf.) So while I was glad I got there, being totally broke while I was there really dampened the experience. If you are going to take out student loans for this, get enough spending cash to be able to take advantage of where you are. My brother was also broke, but took out enough loans that he went to Europe and visited about fifteen different countries over his semester there and do cool things like sailing tours or hang gliding or hiring a local guide in a new city. His experience was orders of magnitude more enjoyable than mine.

(3) When you're paying $7k for this 35 day experience, you're paying for the academic credit. Find a youth tour group and go for cheaper. Put the different toward totally sweet experiences. It may depend on your field, but I have never ever had anyone comment on my study abroad experience when I've interviewed for jobs -- then again, I'm in engineering, and that's not a big deal. But if the academic credit isn't even going to help you graduate, I'm not sure it's worth all the extra money.
posted by olinerd at 3:54 PM on December 23, 2009

This depends a lot on A) What you want out of it; and B) your personality type.

With regards to A), a multi-city whirlwind is not going to teach anything about foreign cultures, other than how to get drunk with a bunch of Americans in cities where people speak English with strange accents. But if could be a fantastic party. If you want a party, do the tour; if you want to really learn something about another place and culture, you need to stay for more than a week.

If you do want to learn a lot about another place and culture, you need to think about B). If you are very outgoing and organized -- say, the type of person that can go into any bar and make new friends, and can find work at the drop of a hat, you may not need a program. But if you're the type of person who is not likely to find a social circle and a purpose quickly in a new environment, your experience might be sitting around at hostels with other expats trying to find sweet parties.

I spent a semester abroad in Ghana in the 90's. And while the academic rigor of the program was not as high as my university, and while the other students were not terribly engaged in academics, I think it was pretty valuable. If I had gone alone I would have been utterly lost and without purpose in a country very different from mine. But the program gave enough structure to my experience to help me out, and I still had quite a lot of freedom (I spent a month alone doing my own research in a city far from my classmates).

In any case, travelling while you are young, full of energy, and without too many job/family/mortgage-type responsibilities is a fantastic idea and I wish you the best of luck.
posted by blapst at 5:47 PM on December 23, 2009

Studying abroad is awesome. This particular study abroad program sounds terrible. That sort of schedule is just awful. You won't learn anything under those circumstances.

Why not look into the other study abroad programs offered by your university? And if they don't have a good one, look into other programs. This sort of thing is easily transferable. So, if one university has a program that sounds great, just make sure that the credits transfer and that you can get financial aid. Most study abroad programs are designed assuming that the majority of the students won't be from the home university.

Also, try to find a program that fits within your major if you can swing it. For example, if you're art history, go to Italy.
posted by k8t at 8:07 AM on December 24, 2009

I agree that this study abroad program does not sound right for you because your main aim for this trip is not formal education and it will not really help you graduate.
I think (but having no direct experience, can't know) that most tour groups will probably entail the same kind of experience that people here are warning you against. Immersing yourself in one culture isn't the only reason to go abroad, but it is one that you would probably miss out on with a fast-moving group of youths who will be visiting only the most popular sites/sights and partying hard. That would probably be fun, but you might feel like it could have happened anywhere.
Also, as you probably know: the study-abroad and touring programs that are most public, that send you fliers and such, are not only more expensive than going alone, but are huge rip-offs.

I recommend finding another study abroad program you are academically into, going on a vacation with friends if possible, or choosing your tour group very carefully.
posted by lilbizou at 1:43 PM on December 24, 2009

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